Cabin owners fight eviction from church property

Saturday's 75-year anniversary celebration at the Zephyr Point Presbyterian Conference Center may have been the last for cabin owners at the lakefront grounds.

The land lease for some 70 cabins on the conference ground's lakefront property will expire at the turn of 2001, and owners are expected to be out of their homes by March.

"The leaseholders were the ones who kept this place going over the last 75 years and we're not even being recognized," said John Packer, who has owned a log cabin A-frame in the Conference Center for 27 years. "The manner in which they've handled this is nearly confiscation and I think it's shameful. I am sure if the hierarchy of the church knew what was going on they would think it was shameful too."

Because leaseholders own the structure but not the land the cabin sits on, no compensation has been offered for their displacement. In addition, the Lake Tahoe Presbyterian Conference Commission is about to embark on a major renovation of the grounds, making it impossible for an extension in the lease contract, said Jeff Rahbeck, attorney for the Conference Commission.

The Conference Center, which occupies a half mile of Lake Tahoe's eastern shoreline, is pursuing a two-step project, first to build a parking garage and a second phase to expand the conference center. The cabin owners, who have four generations of family memories at the grounds, will have to leave to make way for the renovation.

More than 50 cabin owners have joined together in a lawsuit contesting the Commission's action.

Bob Wallin, president of the Zephyr Point Leaseholders Association, said the lawsuit was filed as a last resort after pleas to negotiate a settlement were denied by Commission officials.

"I am a Presbyterian and I am a Christian and I feel that what has taken place is basically wrong," Wallin said. "It is not what you do. It's how you do it."

Wallin said some homeowners have put more than $100,000 of improvements into their cabins, most of which have been built between the1920s and mid-century. As it stands now, the leaseholders have the option of either walking away from their properties or taking their historic cabins with them.

Conference Center Director Janet Leader declined to comment.

Legal counsel for the Commission contends negotiations for a settlement took place before the suit was filed and that all actions by the Commission have been legal.

"Our argument is that it is a 15-year lease and at the end of the term the properties revert to the Commission," Rahbeck said. "It's a written contract and the contract is clear on what people's rights are - they are trying to modify the written document."

Negotiations are still being considered, Rahbeck said.

"I do think we are going to try to sit down and discuss a settlement with them again," he said.

If that doesn't resolve the issues, the complaint will be heard in spring 2001 in Nevada's Washoe County Second District Court.

"It's so uncomfortable to be suing your own church; it doesn't seem right," Wallin said. "But in hindsight the Crusades didn't seem right either."

The Conference Center's application for expansion has not gone before the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's board.

According to Pam Drum, TRPA spokeswoman, the project is divided into two phases, with the first application proposes the construction of a parking garage, a second application is requesting the go-ahead to expand the conference grounds. Drum said she expects the project to be reviewed by the board in the next few months.

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